Ukrainians fleeing to Australia take steps towards a new life, but their hearts remain at home

In a Melbourne dance studio, Hanna Lazarieva is busy putting her young students through their paces.

“Odin, dva, tri!” she yells, keeping the kids in time.

As a professional dancer, Ms Lazarieva is used to landing on her feet.

But four months on from the Russian invasion, Ms Lazarieva is thankful to again be in the studio, albeit on the other side of the world.

“I was very surprised that there is a Ukrainian dance group in Australia. I could not have guessed that there could be such a thing here,” Ms Lazarieva says.

Ukrainian dance teacher Hanna Lazarieva teaches ballet to young students.
Hanna Lazarieva now teaches ballet to students at the Lehenda Dance School.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

Ms Lazarieva and her son are starting their new life in Melbourne, after fleeing the city of Kharkiv.

On February 24, people in the city thought the loud bangs in the night were fireworks.

Soon they realised it was gunfire and the beginnings of a Russian invasion.

Speaking in Ukrainian, Ms Lazarieva said her parents and husband remained in their homeland, under constant threat.

“That’s probably why it’s so hard for me to accept Australia right now,” she says.

“I am very grateful to Australia, I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me here, to every Ukrainian who helps.

“When I call home, they ask me if I have seen kangaroos and koalas yet. I say not yet, but they’re all there thinking they’re all over the place jumping and hanging from the trees.”

Ukrainian dance teacher Hanna Lazarieva in a black leotard at a dance school.
Ms Lazarieva remains deeply concerned for her family and fellow Ukrainians at home.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

The dance teacher and her son are among the 8,000-odd Ukrainians who have been granted temporary humanitarian visas to Australia.

The Department of Home Affairs said more than 3,200 had arrived in the country by the end of May.

The visas allow a three-year stay and permit holders to work, study and access Medicare.

“The biggest challenge is when you talk to people in another language. Everything else I can’t say is very difficult. Melbourne has very nice people who help you with everything,” Ms Lazarieva says.

Ms Lazarieva points to her new employer, the Lehenda School, as an example of that kindness.

Melanie Moravski Dechnicz smiles at the camera in a dance studio with people in leotards behind her.
Melanie Moravski Dechnicz says it’s been hard for the Ukrainian diaspora to find joy in things like dance.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

The dance school’s artistic director, Melanie Moravski Dechnicz, hired her on the spot during their first meeting.

“She’s incredible, it’s been so fantastic to welcome her into our school,” Ms Moravski Dechnicz says.

The school has taken on other Ukrainian refugees as students, free of charge.

It’s a small gesture that provides a connection to their homeland at a time of great uncertainty.

Students hold their hands above their heads in a ballet class.
Students are finding a connection to Ukraine through the dance school.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

“When the war started, it was difficult even for us to dance, it felt really weird to come to the studio. Just to express the culture felt, at the beginning, so difficult,” Ms Moravski Dechnicz says.

The Lehenda Ukrainian Dance Company, linked to the school, will showcase its work to the public in September with a show at The National Theatre.

One of their pieces is called Kyiv, and tells the stories of the city’s historical wars.

“It seems really important to perform that again now,” Ms Moravski Dechnicz says.

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